With a BS in Nursing, Cancer Survivor Focuses on Helping Others

Photo of cancer-survivor Kristina Libby holding her BS in Nursing degree.

Beating cancer twice, overcoming congestive heart failure and having the privilege of being alive to raise her 3 kids led Kristina Libby to embrace a life of appreciation and the desire to help others.

Little did she know that becoming a registered nurse wouldn't necessarily allow her to pursue that important goal. It took earning a degree, a bachelor's in nursing with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), to turn that desire to a reality.

Now a nurse in a managed care facility, Libby's not done yet. Her degree has advanced her role in nursing and "gives me more opportunity to achieve my dreams of becoming a nurse in the oncology field in Boston," she said.

'A Tough Pill to Swallow'

Libby was a bride-to-be, excitedly awaiting her wedding day. She was 28-years-old and had just bought her wedding dress when she found a small lump in her breast. After a medical exam and removal of the lump, Libby learned she had breast cancer, the last thing she expected at this point in her life, given there was no family history.

"No one in my family has ever had breast cancer. So that was a tough pill to swallow," she said. "I had a mastectomy with chemotherapy and they told me at the time that I would have kids."

She and her husband, Jay Morris, adopted their son as a newborn baby, "which was the greatest gift that cancer could have ever given us," Libby said. The couple would go on to have two daughters on their own, and when the youngest was born, Libby was diagnosed once again with cancer.

"With that came congestive heart failure, which was probably the sickest I've ever been in my life," she said. "I was unable to shower or get dressed on my own, and I'm a very independent person. I was trying to care for three babies under the age of four. Trying to take a shower without asking for help. I don't like to ask for help."

But she did have to ask, no matter how hard it was to depend on others. "My husband had to step up and I couldn't be the mother that I wanted to be to my kids," Libby said. "I didn't know where life was going to go. I didn't know if I was going to see my daughter take her first steps."

When her daughter went to kindergarten, she couldn't stop crying. "Every mom cries when their kids go to kindergarten and I couldn't stop crying because I never thought I would see her go to kindergarten, and now my son's going to be going to high school," Libby said. "And I'm here and I'm still here, and I think that my life was spared."

A Purpose in Being Here

As a result, Libby believes she has a purpose in being here: "I need to have a complete life and I need to help others," she said. "And that's why I'm here. I have to use what happened to me, my experience, and make something of it. I can't just sit back and 'oh thank God, I survived.' I can't do that. I have to make it matter. It has to have purpose."  For Libby, that purpose was becoming a nurse.

Once she experienced that breakthrough moment, Libby wondered if she could make her desire to become a nurse a reality. "But I was watching TV, and I saw an SNHU commercial, and I saw the big blue bus come up to somebody's house," she said. "And there was a man with his two kids, and he had his diploma. And I was so proud of that man, because I thought, 'Oh my gosh, he has to have a job. He has a family, and that's me. If that man can do that, and get his diploma, what's stopping me?'"

Libby quickly took stock of her life. She had good health again. Her kids were healthy and they were all in school. She decided to dig a bit deeper into the online nursing program. "I was so nervous and I assumed that it wouldn't work for me," Libby said. "And the financial aspect of it, I literally was shocked. I ran to my husband with my computer and I said, 'Look, look, we can do this" because all of the programs around here at the state schools, we would have had to take out a second mortgage. It was not possible - and Southern New Hampshire University was affordable."

Support and Flexibility Helped Her Reach Her Goals

With the financial hurdle resolved, Libby still felt some trepidation about pursuing her degree through online coursework. She called her academic advisor and told she wasn't quite sure if she could do it but hoped she could try. "And she held my hand through the entire program. She sent me the syllabus before I even started the program and said, 'Look it over, and call and ask me any questions.' And I did, probably every day for two weeks. She was incredibly helpful and if it weren't for her help and support, it wouldn't have been such a smooth transition."

Libby especially liked the flexibility the online program offered, as it allowed her to go to her kids' sporting events, along with her work and her husband working, too. "But yet I was still able to get assignments in on time. They give you a syllabus when you first start the course, so you know what to expect. There are no surprises throughout the course, and each assignment builds off the assignment before, so it's not new," she said.

She was surprised by how personable and supportive her advisors and instructors were. "I felt like I had a personal relationship with my instructors throughout each class I took," Libby said. "You were able to get to know the instructor as well as your other classmates through the online portal. Any questions that you had, the instructors were always there, readily available to answer. They really care about your progress and supported you throughout the course and were great about giving you advice on how to make the assignment better or what you should leave out of an assignment."

She said the class size was really small, which made it easier for instructor and student engagement. Her husband marveled at Libby's work ethic throughout her BSN program - and her ability to stay on top of their children's activities and family life as well as complete her program with a 4.0 GPA.

"How she reacts to situations, how she has her thumb on the pulse of every single thing that they do whether it be sports, whether it be to the schooling, with their teachers, what services they may need. That's why she was put on this earth," he said. "And for whatever crazy reason that she has had all this adversity ... I think about it, there has to be a reason for it whether it's to get her story out there, whether it's to show that, "Hey, listen. You can win this fight. Never give up."

Once Libby decided she was going to earn her BSN with SNHU, it was full steam ahead. Had she not had that option, her husband doesn't feel it could have worked out as she needed. "Without the Southern New Hampshire University online program, there's no way that Christina would have obtained her BSN," Morris said. "It just wouldn't have been in the cards for us, unfortunately. But we're very, very fortunate that not only, one, that she found it; two, that she was accepted. I'm very, very grateful for that, my family is."

Their children were especially excited when they learned their mother was returning to school. They liked seeing her work on homework, and understood she had to focus on more than just them some nights. "The kids respected that," he said.

Her Degree Equips Her to Give Back

When Libby completed her program, her first phone call was to her husband; she was crying and said she did it, she got her BSN, just like she said she would, her husband recalls. He was so proud, and especially upon learning she would be recognized with an academic award at SNHU prior to graduation for earning a 4.0 in her degree program.

He told her, "Come on, we're going up. We're going up. You deserve this, but the kids deserve to see your hard work, everything you've endured through your life, and what you've done, and what they can do."

Their kids were proud to see their mom in her cap and gown, and walk at graduation - and see how much her hard work paid off.

For Libby, it's all about taking care of others, whether it's her children, her family or the patients she oversees. Beyond her good health, her appreciation for everything she's been through and the goals she worked so hard to achieve, there is still so much ahead that Libby wants to do. Much of it will be possible now that she has her BSN.  

"She can give back to people. If it wasn't for this nursing degree, people wouldn't get the care from my wife that they deserve," Morris said. "A lot of people wouldn't get to meet my wife and be cared for by her." 

Pamme Boutselis is a writer and content director in higher education. Follow her on Twitter @pammeb or connect on LinkedIn.

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